In a welcome victory for civil liberties, the United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled that using a GPS tracking device to monitor a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant is unconstitutional. The ruling in United States v. Jones (10-1259) makes it clear that this kind of warrantless tracking violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court stated unequivocally that, “The Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.”

In 2004, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators placed a GPS tracking device on suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones’s vehicle without having first obtained a warrant. They tracked Jones’s vehicle 24-hours/day for four weeks, eventually charging him with a number of drug related charges. Jones was convicted, but that conviction was later overturned by an appeals court because it rested on the unconstitutionally obtained tracking data from the GPS device.

The Jones case is one of two important civil liberties cases Off on a Tangent is monitoring in the court’s current session. Had the court ruled in the government’s favor, it would have been a very serious erosion of our basic civil liberties and damning evidence that we are now living under an extra-constitutional government. I am pleased that the Court ruled solidly in favor of individual rights, and am pleasantly surprised that there were no dissenters. Sadly, civil liberty cases are usually narrow 5-4 rulings these days.